Ivor Gurney

Our information pack about Ivor Gurney, including his life and works during World War One, is now available for public download. To download the resource pack, click below:

Ivor Gurney Resource Pack

Ivor Gurney bore witness to the First World War as a composer and poet. As a highly gifted musician, especially as a composer of song, music would have been his career had the war not intervened.

At the outbreak of hostilities he tried to join up but was rejected due to poor eyesight. He was later accepted in 1915, becoming a Private in the 2/5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, and was sent to France in May 1916. As composing was generally impractical in the trenches, Gurney increasingly turned to writing poetry.

In 1917, he suffered minor wounds, inhaled poison gas at Passchendaele later in the year, which, coupled with possible shell shock, forced him to return to England. He was in poor physical health and was showing increasing signs of mental instability. He was never to return to the front, being finally discharged from the army in October 1918.

He recovered sufficiently to return to the Royal College of Music where he studied with Vaughan Williams. This was a period of intense creativity where he wrote an enormous number of poems and songs, but as mental illness took an increasing hold over him, he was forced to abandon his studies in 1922. He was subsequently committed to an asylum where he remained until his death from tuberculosis in 1937, his music and poetry having become increasingly incoherent.

It remains unclear exactly what the full extent of the influence of the war was on Ivor Gurney, but it clearly took its toll on his life. Signs of mental illness were already apparent before the war. Ironically his time in the trenches seemed to bring him relative peace; it was after the war, deprived of the comradeship of fellow soldiers and the structure of army life, when he had to fend for himself, that his symptoms grew worse.

Ivor Gurney wrote over 300 songs, but only 91 have been published. Five songs are known to have been written while he was serving in France including Severn Meadows, By a Bierside and In Flanders. His poems, and those written by others which he set to music, either evoke feelings of homesickness, or recall life in the trenches with an acceptance of the possibility of death.

We may be focusing on Gurney throughout our May 2014 public workshops, using his love for the combination of poetry and music as inspiration for these sessions.

Information from the above summary can be found in the following books and online resources

Michael Hurd: The ordeal of Ivor Gurney
Grove Music Online (free access for members of Westminster Libraries)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (free access for members of Westminster Libraries)


To find out more, click on the links

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